The US right splinters

John Rawls has done more to promote the ideals of egalitarianism and social justice than any thinker since the Second World War. And no thinker has been more openly hostile to these ideals than Friedrich Hayek - at least this is the conventional interpretation of Hayek's work.

But in their struggle against post-war philosophy's greatest egalitarian thinker, Hayek's disciples have a problem - their guru didn't leave them any arguments against Rawls. The reason he didn't was because he agreed with Rawls. In the second volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty Hayek explained that he saw little point in engaging with Rawls' Theory of Justice since 'the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial..."

Hayek was not mistaken about this. When he disagrees with Rawls it is over economic not philosophical issues. Much of the apparent philosophical disagreement is a result of Hayek's peculiar way of using terms like egalitarianism and social justice.

Hayek spent his entire career arguing against the socialism of the 1930s and 40s. But by the 1970s the leading egalitarian thinkers had moved on - not just in their policies but also in their ideals. While Hayek's arguments against socialist central planning are devastating, his work has done little to refute the social democratic vision Rawls inspired.

Hayek took a stand against nationalisation and central planning at a time when these policies were fashionable with both sides of politics. He played a leading role in organising a movement to defend the free market against socialism. And for his efforts he has earned the respect of a generation of think tank intellectuals and conservative politicians. He has also earned the undying enmity of the left - a left which, ironically, has largely abandoned the socialist ideals he attacked.

"In the United States, the Republican Party's drift towards big government populism, its pandering to special interests, its passion for military adventures, and its disregard for civil liberties has alienated Hayek's intellectual heirs."

Hayek has become an icon - a symbol for an entire movement. And in the comic book world of partisan stereotypes, Hayek's own voice gets lost. Political thinkers are expected to be team players, and both Hayek's supporters and opponents credit him with stereotyped views that he never held.

It's not easy to give a concise overview of Hayek's political philosophy. His thought was always a work in progress. He described himself as a 'muddler' - the kind of thinker who struggles to find a new way of understanding a subject rather than simply elaborating the conventional doctrine. Muddlers, he said, will sometimes 'talk about a subject before they have painfully worked through to some degree of clarity'.

Readers looking for a simple endorsement of partisan doctrine will be disappointed by Hayek. His ideas are alive. The various strands of his thought head off in different directions and it's not always clear where they lead. Perhaps the best approach to his work is to read him the way he read others. In his essay 'Two types of mind' he wrote:

My gain from hearing or reading what other people thought was that it changed, as it were, the colours of my own concepts. What I heard or read did not enable me to reproduce their thought but altered my thought. I would not retain their ideas or concepts but modify the relations between my own.

Now that the social democratic left has finished with central planning and nationalisation, it's time to rethink political ideas and reconsider intellectual alliances. We can safely allow Hayek's thoughts to influence our own without worrying that we'll be brainwashed into becoming doctrinaire neoliberals. In the process we may find that some of Hayek's friends are our friends too.

In recent years some libertarian thinkers have grown frustrated with their conservative allies. In the United States, the Republican Party's drift towards big government populism, its pandering to special interests, its passion for military adventures, and its disregard for civil liberties has alienated Hayek's intellectual heirs.

In their search for new intellectual partners, the Cato Institute's Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey are talking about a combination of Hayek's economic insights with Rawls' philosophical theory. For social democrats who look to Rawls rather than Marx, this is a conversation worth having. If only we were able to have it in Australia.

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